Posted by Eduard von Fischer on August 05, 2003
Both your historical and scientific arguments against this "saying" are impressive. However, I would like to make the following points:
1. Like any saying of this sort, it was meant to exaggerate the condition - in this case, the temperature (e.g. It's hotter than Hell) - and really doesn't need a scientific argument to either prove or disprove it.
2. Regarding the term brass monkey - the boys (and they were boys) who carried powder and cannon balls on sailing ships were called powder monkeys. So it would follow that the device that held the cannon balls (and powder) might well be called a "monkey" - and if made of brass, a "brass monkey".
You have to realise that these (and many other) nautical sayings were originated by semi-literate, but highly imaginative, sailors who didn't know or care about the niceties of science. So even if the devices which held the cannon balls were made of wood, it is not too far fetched to think that someone thought up the saying "It's cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey" while pondering his ill-luck at being in freezing seas in the North Atlantic - or while spinning a yarn to his shipmates.
As someone who has been at sea with the more literate - but equally imaginative - modern sailor, I can't help but think this phrase has a valid nautical origin. And to pooh-pooh it as a "nautical version of an urban myth" seems a bit patronising!
See also - the meaning and origin of 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'.